Leading in the Covid-19 crisis: tips for NGO leaders

14 April 2020
Author: Penny Lawrence

Leading an organisation in such an unprecedented crisis is tough. Crises often encourage individualistic, heroic “command and control” leadership, but global challenges like Covid-19 demand more collaborative, collective  leadership. 

Leaders, like Andrew Cuomo and Jacinda Ardern, are being praised for their clarity and honesty, their authenticity and empathy, and their ability to create meaning out of challenging circumstances. They convey warmth and an absence of assumption. They use “We” rather than “I”. They listen and engage. They include, empower and trust others.

As an executive coach for NGO leaders and Oxfam GB’s former crisis director for many years, I’m sharing some of my practical insights. Here are some pragmatic tips on “regularising” your crisis response in a collective, inclusive way.

Stop, reflect, include and regularise

After the initial frantic days of leading a crisis where everyone will have prioritised what is obvious to them, leaders should be the first to draw breath, stop and reflect on whether you’re prioritising the right things and whether you’re doing these things right. 

Questions to consider:

  • What is going well and what may need more attention?
  • How much are you listening your clients and their changing needs, as well as keeping them informed about what’s happening? 
  • How are you responding to isolated staff and partners when you’re all working remotely? Are you telling them what you’re doing? 
  • How are you sourcing all the talents you have, not just taking the tough decisions alone? 
  • Are you “role-modelling” taking care of yourself, as well as those around you? 
  • Can you take swift actions within a longer-term frame? 

“Regularising” your organisational crisis response within your longer-term organisations plans ensures sustainability. It avoids narrowly focussing on only urgent issues, e.g. financials. It can support you in balancing your duty of care as everyone adjusts to managing home, family and work life, whilst maximising the staff capabilities and resources you have. It can enable you to shift to more collective leadership (especially when operating remotely) and can help leaders to step back to a host/coordinator role, rather than a “doer”. 

Do you have the right range of skills and perspectives around your crisis leadership team “table” to find creative ways forward? Invite those that would add value from their experience. You’ll maximise your diverse talent resource and help develop next generation leaders. 

Matt Pieri encourages us to ask for tips on remote working and self-isolation from those with expertise: many disabled people cope with this every day. Thriving in a crisis depends on an ability to not only hear diverse voices and ideas, but to act and enable collaboration to realise new ways forward.

Crises often amplify existing organisational traits and leadership cultures. Consider what your staff surveys or performance review feedback tells you. The best crisis leaders are confident in being inclusive. They are confident in not knowing. They ask for help, show their own vulnerability, and are open, honest and trustworthy. 

A few more tips to keep listening to staff remotely:

  • Team leaders could be available once a week at the same time to talk to staff via an “open-door” video conference or team stand up
  • Make sure virtual meetings are run inclusively 
  • Encourage staff to send any questions to a central address. Your crisis team can review the week’s questions (useful to take the temperature of what’s worrying staff) draft answers (or appoint a dedicated internal comms lead to do so). Publish the questions and answers at a regular time every week, with most recently most asked questions at the top. 
  • Beware of information overload: use short sentences, include only what everyone needs to know, and use links for detail.
  • Add the personal stories and positive progress stories. 
  • Encourage non-work-related networking, e.g. virtual coffees.

Co-create plans

Co-creating a short planning document with your team that captures your organisational priorities in response to the crisis is helpful. This includes your objectives, priority actions for those you serve, your staff and the organisation for the next week, the coming weeks and the long term.

This plan can be used to frame discussions and agree collective priorities together – discussed in a weekly Leadership Team call, cascaded to inform and identify where help is needed and enable accountability. 

A useful plan should include:

  • Threats (for clients, staff, organisation and sector) Survival: What are the threats you have identified and need to most urgently respond to this week? What can you delay to next week? What do you need to stop doing to enable the threats to be managed? Thriving: What future threats are likely to enable you to thrive if you don’t adapt?  
  • Opportunities (for clients, staff, organisation and sector) Are there opportunities to use your resources differently to help in the crisis or to realise your long-term strategic intent from the impact of the crisis for each of the groups?
  • Risks (for clients, staff, organisation and sector)

Crises can demand higher risk appetites, so has your risk appetite changed? Which risks remain or are heightened by the crisis? What can be deprioritised? What new risks do you need to add? How do you plan to use (or protect) reserves?

The document is useful for boards and senior managers. Consider if your board has set up a smaller crisis subgroup with delegated authority to enable agile support and decision making. 

To get you started, here is a worked example of a crisis planning document, based on Refugee Action’s Covid-19 plans.

Are you a CEO looking for advice on how to steer your organisation through the Covid-19 crisis? Join Penny and Stephen Hale, CEO of Refugee Action, at our webinar for CEOs on 22 April. 
 

About the author

Penny Lawrence

Penny is an executive coach, applied researcher and consultant. She was deputy chief executive and programmes director at Oxfam GB from 2006 until 2018.